Tuesday, August 30, 2011
The bus that evening took us to a different bus station than expected, but I was able to follow the bus's course on my map and found out where we were. The Lonely Planet warned about the infamous taxi mafia of Hanoi, who overcharge, or worse, drop tourists at the wrong hotel, but with an identical name. We didn't want to be another victim. I'd learned early in my trip that taxi drivers were not to be trusted, so I developed a safe method to avoid scams and hotel touting. Simply have them drop you off at a high profile tourist attraction close to hotels, but also on a main road.
Our taxi driver was smiley and friendly, never a good sign in Asia, so I watched him closely, following his course on my map, noting the distance and spotting the meter. We pulled out of the parking lot and magically traveled two kilometers! I've never been too great with distance, but I doubted this tiny parking lot was among the world's largest bus stations.
"Hey man, meter broken."
He ignored me.
He continued to ignore me. About every ten feet, the meter would add a hundred meters. It also kindly rounded .9km to 1.1km every time. Though we'd driven about three kilometers total (I watched his car odometer carefully), we'd somehow driven a total of ten kilometers, enough to put us well into the suburbs. He asked for his money from Michelle while I took down his registration for yet another email to the Vietnamese Board of Tourism. We sadly had no small change, so we gave him 50,000, half the meter. He stood there with his hand out wanting more.
"No!" I said. "Meter fast."
He chuckled, did not argue and got in his taxi and left. He still made twice the fare from us anyway.
We tried to find a dirty, cheap hotel, but had no luck. The cheapest (and we had to do a walkaway to get the price) was run by a mere boy who enjoyed playing online games more than doing his job. The room was ok, but it had its own computer with working facebook, so that made it all worthwhile.
Hanoi, or at least the middle is quite small. We saw most of the sites in a day, stopping by the Temple of Literature, a small lake in the old town, and some other random things along the way. We mostly people watched. It's a lovely city, much like Saigon, very green. In some ways it seemed like a giant small city, lacking skyscrapers and the soullessness of other big cities.
The highlight of our first day was a performance of the National Water Puppet Theater, an ancient art form done traditionally with floating puppets on the rice paddies, depicting scenes of rural life and old fables. We had to settle for a theater instead of paddies, but it was still wonderful. The puppets were run with many complex hidden mechanisms. I read that the secrets of the puppets were passed down through the generations and always to men (women could marry and potentially tell the secrets to their husbands of the other family). The troupe we saw did have a few women, so this tradition must be dead. The best part was the music, played by a talented traditional orchestra.
Our hotel flooded that night from the rain, so we moved to a new, less nice interior room. We had to pick our new room ourselves since the boy was still to busy with his games to point us to a new one.
We took it easy in the morning, then strolled through the old city a bit. Every street is named after the craft practiced by the storekeepers, so there's a hat street, a bamboo rod street, a wood bowl street, a toilet seat street. These days though, they should all be renamed to tourist shit street. Our main goal, however, was to hunt down some dog meat.
Lonely Planet mentioned some restaurants North of the city, by the West Lake, so we made an afternoon of it, getting lost in the suburbs north of town. Though it was nicer along the lake, the dog restaurants were just off the highway. Finally we saw a sign for dog meat and stopped.
The place we stopped was almost like a warehouse loft. In the states, it would be hip, eating on the ground of an abandoned factory, sipping imported Vietnamese beer and chowing on dog sausages with the soundtrack of barking dogs in the distance; in this real setting though in Vietnam, it was a little unsettling. We were given three varieties of dog, slices of roast, some sausage, and some fried, coated meat. It all came with a crispy sesame, rice cake. Dog meat is ok; it didn't taste remarkable in any way, just generic protein. I know I won't be looking at Zeke as a tail-wagging snack, but at least I know that if I find myself in a Jack London short story, I at least have some options. Sorry White Fang.
For our last day, we visited the national art gallery, which was ok. Nineteenth century sculpture is quite incredible. the subject is mostly religious, depicting pilgrims, but the stylized facial expressions, like three dimensional representations of Van Gogh's Potato eaters were quite powerful. The paintings largely derivative of European styles from 50 years before. Some of the war era works were good, primarily the horrific ones. I didn't care for the propagandist works with smiling soldiers helping the villagers pull buffalo out of the muck and other such heartless drivel.
On the way back, we stopped by the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, which was a sort of communist neo-classical style if you can imagine that. Much like other communist leaders, the people are allowed to view the embalmed body, despite his wished to be simply cremated. The viewings were closed that afternoon; I'm not sure if I was disappointed or not.
Michelle had her flight back home the next morning, so we stopped for a nice meal at Highway 4, specializing in Northwestern Vietnamese cuisine and some high quality rice and fruit spirits, where were quite fantastic. We ordered stir-fried water buffalo and some fantastic roast duck served on a bed of crispy, deep-fried herbs. Asia keeps introducing me to such novel, yet delicious cooking styles. Partway through our add-on dish of deep-fried, breaded chicken tossed in a passion fruit sauce, Michelle got a call with tragic news from home, quickly bringing our evening to a halt.
We stayed up for too late, packing , talking and just doing our best to enjoy the short time we had left with eachother. I wasn't looking forward to the next morning. Michelle and I have basically been spending every moment together for about two months and we'd been a couple for four months already. I fearing traveling alone again. Except for the two weeks in North Thailand, I'd had steady company for the last six months. I wouldn't be alond for too long though. In three weeks I would be visiting Fai and Eddie in Hong Kong, followed by a visit to Ray in Taiwan. After that, I was joining Michelle again in Norway for a couple weeks before we each start our lives again, apart.